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How to choose the right RAID level for your disk array

Cut through vendor hype and determine which RAID level (or levels) is right for your disk array.

What you will learn from this tip: How to cut through vendor hype and determine which RAID level (or levels) is...

right for your disk array.

Modern storage arrays offer disk types to meet any need -- costly Fibre Channel (FC) disks for high-end applications requiring superior performance and availability, and lower priced SATA disks for less-critical data. The arrays also come with mixed RAID configurations. But selecting the right mix of disks and RAID levels requires understanding the impact of those decisions.

Arrays with mixed RAID support allow users to optimize application cost, performance and availability on a single array. With storage management an ever-escalating cost, the ability to select a single vendor's array to satisfy a multitude of storage scenarios is enticing. In addition to the different types of disk, the new arrays offer simplified management, ease of data migrations from one tier of disk to another, and the ability to increase capacity or improve performance on the fly.

Despite the fact almost every storage array vendor offers at least one array that supports more than one RAID type, vendors don't agree on whether you need more than just one RAID configuration. Nexsan Technologies says RAID-5 is best in almost every data protection situation. EqualLogic Inc. disagrees: It offers RAID-10 or RAID-50, but not RAID-5. Xiotech Corp. wants to see RAID-6 come on the market.

RAID-5, however, continues to gain momentum as the default standard for FC and serial ATA (SATA) disk. Users find it provides acceptable levels of data protection, disk utilization and performance for most applications. But there are still times when users will want to consider using other RAID levels, especially when using SATA disks. In cases where multiple RAID types are used, administrators need to understand how and where these RAID types get placed internally within the array and the risks associated with mixing and managing multiple RAID types on a single array.

Knowing which RAID implementation to deploy depends on a range of factors:

  • The number of front- and back-end controllers on the array
  • The amount of cache
  • The disk capacity behind each back-end controller
  • The performance requirements of the application using the disk
  • The speed or rpm of each disk behind each controller

Industry benchmarks and vendor documentation will provide statistics and information on array cache, I/O capabilities, the number of front-end FC and iSCSI interfaces, back-end controllers, the type of disk used and internal architecture. Once administrators gather these facts, they can determine the best RAID configuration for their environment.

The right RAID

Storage array vendors allow RAID configurations to be set on each controller or parity group that sits in front of the disks. Using array management software provided by the storage vendor, users can log in and configure any controller on the array with any of the RAID settings the controller supports. Users may also change an application's underlying RAID configurations on the fly, assuming they have the vendor's licensed software and a spare disk group. Arrays such as EMC Corp.'s Clariion, IBM Corp.'s DS4000 and Hitachi Data Systems' (HDS) TagmaStore offer software that allows users to move the data from a disk group configured as RAID-1 to a disk group configured as RAID 5 without application downtime.

Yet selecting a specific RAID type is becoming less of an issue on high-end monolithic and modular arrays as users increasingly choose RAID-5. HDS reports that more than 85% of its arrays now get configured as RAID-5 because users find that RAID-5 provides acceptable tradeoffs between availability, capacity, data protection and performance when compared to other RAID configurations. However, not every storage array vendor implements RAID-5 the same way. Here are some examples of how they differ:

  • Modular models sold by BlueArc Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) use RAID controllers supplied by Engenio Information Technologies, which offers two different types of disk controllers, the 5884 and 28XX models. The 5884 controller is ASIC-based and used primarily with FC disks. Engenio bases its lower-end 28XX models on Intel Corp.'s XScale chip, and it's used primarily in its SATA arrays.
  • The newest RAID controllers soon to show up on IBM's DS4000 will support Emulex Corp.'s switch-on-a-chip technology. This approach provides a dedicated path between the controller and each disk drive, as opposed to a shared path between the controller and all of the disk drives behind it.
  • An increasing number of arrays now support global hot spares. These are disk drives not tied to any disk group that can replace a disk in a RAID-5 configuration that fails.
  • HDS is among a growing number of vendors implementing RAID5+, where parity is striped across all of the volumes in the RAID group. This helps to eliminate most of the write penalty associated with RAID-5.

Read the rest of this tip in Storage magazine.

For more information:

Tip: A quick and dirty way to increase a RAID-5 array

Tip: All RAID is not created equal

Tip: These mistakes can kill RAID dead

About the author: Jerome Wendt is an independent writer specializing in the field of open systems storage and storage area networks. He has managed storage for small and large organizations in this capacity.

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